If trees could speak our language, they’d put their voices together urging everyone to take time to read through Peter Wohlleben’s new illustrated edition of The Hidden Life of Trees. In fact, they do speak, though we must forgo our means of communication for a bit in order to tune in to theirs.
Magical is a word that describes a world that children build with their imagination. Magical is what fairy-tales deliver and what we lend ourselves to when our children plead for one more story, or we simply try to escape for a bit in the realm of unmitigated wonder and beauty. Can science be weaved with magic to lure us towards that realm? Though he might have not intended for such an outcome, Mr. Wohlleben entices us once again with stories of wonder, backed by science and now intertwined with stunning images in The Hidden Life of Trees, The Illustrated Edition, an abridged version of the original book, The Hidden Life of Trees (Greystone Books, Vancouver.)
Even if you have already read the unabridged version, the illustrated version will not appear redundant, for the same reason that walking through the same forest repeatedly is not. As you leaf through it, you’ll find yourself dazzled by the photos, some displayed luxuriously on two pages; stunning glimpses into mystery, haunting beauty and coziness that each of us has once found under crown of an old tree, or on the paths shaped by time, breaching roots and countless animal steps.
The illustrated edition appeals to our innate curiosity. You will want to move to the next photo until you reach the very last one. By then, you will be won over by a deeper curiosity: the stories that drew the photos into the book. If you have already read the book, it will be like seeing an old friend; familiarity. If you have not, enjoy the treat.
What will strike you as you read through the book is the subtle and constant reminder that Mr. Wohlleben provides: trees are social beings, their existence tied to other living organisms, from the smallest and often invisible to the naked eye, to the one hidden underground (fungi) to the critters we see if luck and patience come along for a walk into the woods. They all play an essential role. It is a world that exists only as a multileveled symbiotic masterpiece; microorganisms, fungi, plants and animals connected to each other in intricate ways, some of which are still poorly understood even by the most diligent of scientists.
It is no secret that much of the western world has lent itself too much to individualism at the expense of communities becoming empty of that collective soul that has held humans together since the beginning of time. We think we can do it on our own and pursue that illusion at all costs. Trees, of all living things, quietly and serenely arching their branches over us, are to remind of us a simple, humbling truth: each of us is only as strong and able as the community that surrounds us. In Mr. Wohlleben’s words, ‘A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate…If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age.’
Present-day attention deficit is an endemic few can deny, leaving little or no room for nature’s gifts. A book such as this carries a worthwhile reminder: stay connected. The reasons are many and vital.
What do you remember of your first time into a forest? The soft whoosh of your every step and the multitude of noises and smells that overwhelmed your senses, the irrepressible feeling of belonging though you could not put in in words as to why it felt that way?
The illustrated version of The Hidden Life of Trees refreshes all those sensations but adds a pinch of urgency as well: our trees are suffering, and we need to attend to it. Mr. Wohlleben speaks for the trees. He points to the faulty ways we confine trees to tight spaces, roots and all packed up conveniently, for the sake of greening our cities, transforming them into unruly, sad and dejected at times ‘street kids.’ We are invited to ponder over uncomfortable issues, the pains and challenges that we experience as a planet as our climate changes: ‘The older the tree, the more quickly it grows. If we want to use forests to combat climate change, we must allow them to grow old.’
Ultimately, Mr. Wohlleben brings to our attention, ever so gently in his charming storytelling manner we have now come to love after reading his other book, The Inner Life of Animals (Greystone Books, Vancouver,) that stories have a moral we need to absorb and make part of our lifestyle if we are to see a brighter future.
The high price of convenience and whim is written across large clear-cut swaths of previously thick forested land, and it is packed in mouthfuls of polluted air, which all living beings breathe in, trees included. We can form a coalition, Mr. Wohlleben reminds us, with the silent giants around us, to ensure everyone’s better future. ‘Forests matter at a more fundamental level than most of us realize,’ he writes. In that, he calls to a truth we are bound to forget but cannot deny: when the daily trappings of modern, hurried life get the best of us, we can always count on a simple walk among trees for that grip to loosen as we draw in a clean breath.
Title: The Hidden Life of Trees, The Illustrated Edition
Author: Peter Wohlleben, translated and adapted from the original German by Jane Billinghurst
Publisher: Greystone Books Ltd., Vancouver and David Suzuki Institute